Can we reach nirvana via agroecology?

The 12,000-year history of agriculture is all about production within nature’s limits. Then fossil fuels came along 150 years ago to make us want to go back to the future…

Check this out for a great idea.

We believe agroecology offers the way to support healthy diets and provide sustainable and just food systems to meet the needs of a growing planet — without sacrificing the planet  

Doreen Robinson, Head of Biodiversity Land Management,  UNEP

Feeding people for a long time with healthy food without pillaging the environment is nirvana, but also a fundamental requirement that would buy humanity the time and emotional space to fix our myriad of other problems.

When people don’t have access to good food they panic. So keeping all 8 billion of us fed makes good sense to retain any semblance of a stable society.

Is agroecology the answer? 

Let’s see.

What is agroecology?

Here is a simple definition of agroecology from the Soils Association

Agroecology is sustainable farming that works with nature. 

Recalling that ecology is the study of relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environment – and the balance between these relationships. This makes agroecology the application of ecological concepts and principals to farming.

And here is what the FAO says about it

Agroecology is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.

Pretty consistent. 

Apply the principles of nature to growing food.

FAO also identify in The 10 Elements Of Agroecology Guiding The Transition To Sustainable Food And Agricultural Systems the aspects of agroecology that would get us to a food nirvana and to meet some of the SDG targets.

  1. Diversity
  2. Synergies
  3. Efficiency
  4. Resilience
  5. Recycling
  6. Co-creation and sharing of knowledge 
  7. Human and social values
  8. Culture and food traditions 
  9. Responsible governance
  10. Circular and solidarity economy 

Well, there you have it. 

A simple and easy route to food nirvana, technobabble style.

rural landscape with a village in s gentle valley
Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Back to the future

Marty McFly accidentally travels back to 1955 in a time-travelling DeLorean automobile built by his eccentric scientist “Doc” Brown where Marty inadvertently prevents his future parents’ meeting—threatening his existence—and is forced to reconcile the pair and somehow get back to the future.

Agroecology with its unnecessary UN bells and whistles is another in the time-travelling sci-fi trope.

Working with nature to grow food is exactly what the first farmers did 12,000 years ago. 

In the fertile crescent, for example, people harnessed the high diversity of plant species with small seeds that could self-pollinate and be cross-pollinated, good candidates for early experiments in cultivation. 

They combined annual and perennial crops, livestock and aquatic animals, trees, soils, water on the land close to the rivers that became the new farms and without knowing it created synergies of nutrient and water use that were efficient enough for them to stay put all year round.

Staying put was a highly successful outcome that allowed new ideas like ownership, trade and permanent structures to persist. We can safely assume that the new invention of agriculture was resilient given there are still farms across the crescent today. 

Archeological researchers have used stable isotope analysis to establish that these early farmers intensified production through water management and used manure to enhance crop yields. 

No doubt they recycled plant as well as animal waste too.

We don’t know if they co-operated. The initial assumption that these early farmers were a homogenous group that traded and intermingled was questioned by genetic research from 2016 suggesting that multiple groups of people in the Fertile Crescent started agriculture but were isolated from each other. What we do know is that agriculture spread from a handful of origin sites to every continent both by the slow migration of farmers themselves and by the passing on of agricultural techniques to hunter-gatherers.

The early years of agriculture was also when human and social values and culture were developing rapidly. The pyramids and the acropolis were only possible because the people had time and energy to build them, along with the social system and governance to encourage or force them to work. 

Perhaps the only one of the 10 elements on the FAO list that we cannot be sure was happening 12,000 years ago among the first farmers was a circular and solidarity economy

We can assume the economy was a form of barter given money came later. Accounting records date back more than 7,000 years in the region of the Fertile Crescent and documents from ancient Mesopotamia show lists of expenditures, and goods received and traded.

farmer in India adding fertilizer to his rice paddy
Photo by wilsan u on Unsplash

Modern agriculture

A trip in a time-travelling DeLorean automobile back to early agriculture is attractive because of what modern intensive agriculture has become.

In short, a just-in-time production system is highly dependent on inputs (energy, nutrients, water) not wholly controlled by the farmer, along with a fickle market for produce. 

Modern agriculture is productive with yields way in excess of anything those early farmers could imagine, but with low resilience and susceptibility to disruption from climate and markets alike.

More important is why the inputs are needed in the first place. Farming is supported less and less by the nutrient sharing ability of soil. 

Imagine what happens to soil when plants are grown year after year for thousands of years and the highly nutritious parts of the plant is harvested, eaten and defecated into the ocean. Soils have had their nutrients and organic matter mined. 

Obviously human and social values have changed since the first farmers experimented with crops and livestock. Today we have corporations with capital and technology to intensively farm at scale. And it is vital that this happens to feed the majority of us that live in urban areas and can’t feed ourselves.

This system is precarious and lacks resilience but it is successful in the conversion of ancient energy into food. And humanity cannot yet live without it.

The question asked is this…

Is agroecology the answer? 

Yes and no.

sFED has ecology as one of the three pillars for sustainably feeding everyone and we are huge fans of agroecology as a concept.

Wherever it is possible farms should revert back onto ecological principles to support production with simple measures such as retaining vegetation cover on soil all the time, reducing tillage and recycling as much organic matter as possible within the farm.

But if we do this everywhere and ignore intensive agriculture altogether it will not feed the 5 billion people expected to be living in urban areas by 2050.

Agroecology offers a way for part of the food production system. It needs to become the dominant and most widespread mode of production because it is the only way to avoid running out of commercial fertilizers, pesticides and reduce emissions from energy use.

Unfortunately, agroecology is not the way, at least not yet.

Hero image modified from a photo by Bee Naturalles on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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